Jesus and Caesar: God’s Love in the Context of Roman Imperialism

“Kiss of Judas” by Giotto (fresco)

Some time ago the writings of theologian David Ray Griffin crossed my desk. Griffin sets Jesus’ ministry squarely in opposition to Roman imperialism in the first century. He quotes Richard Horsely as saying, “Trying to understand Jesus without knowing how Roman imperialism” worked is like “trying to understand Martin Luther King without knowing how slavery, reconstruction, and segregation” worked.

To better understand what precisely Jesus was opposing, Griffin outlines five attributes of imperialism:

  1. A conviction that the Empire has divine authorization to rule: The claim, basically, that the leader of the empire is somehow divinely elected, “God’s man,” and backed by the state or nationalist (imperial) cult, church, or religion. The first Caesar claimed that he was the “Son of the gods”, and legend claimed he was born of a virgin (sound familiar?).
  2. The employment of military power to maintain and sustain an illusion of peace (pax romana), a peace Caesar once declared as euangelion or “good news/gospel” as early as 9 BC. This power doesn’t always come in the form of violence, but can emerge in two ways: (1) appeasement/distraction that anesthetizes the masses by way of mass entertainment, gladiatorial sporting, and sex (lots of sex); or (2) the sowing seeds of discord and division that keeps people fighting one another rather than legislating change. Division and unrest inevitably necessitates a stronger police state.  The more policing, the higher the budget for a government military complex and standing military presence.
  3. The use of terror and intimidation to silence, marginalize or otherwise banish alternative narratives that re-frame hope, challenge, and kingship. At times, discrediting the narrator(s) is more effective than addressing the narrative, even if it means dehumanizing or marginalizing the narrator(s) or “alternative herald(s). When Jesus was crucified, the sign above his head read, “King of the Jews,” and Jesus’ “good news” (euangelion) was in direct contradiction to Caesar’s “good news”.
  4. Rule through puppets (governors, mayors, High Priests who claim to speak for the state, etc) backed by the empire’s “pervasive military presence.” Court priests or prophets affirm divine right of rule, and insure the legitimacy of imperial status quo.  This inevitably establishes competing values in which a civic religious cult must “back” the state even when it contradicts its most basic beliefs, such as lobbying for “pro-life” initiatives such as banning child sacrifice, all while lobbying for “anti-life” initiatives such as war, limited access to healthcare, and the amassing of weapons.
  5. The collection of taxes to build an interdependent economy that doubles as a metric to measure “health and good will” (my words) upon which the citizens both rely and “trust”. There is a constant threat of break-down in the economy that produces fear and encourages the endless accumulation of resources. This means accumulation by any means necessary, even at the expense of human lives or exploitation of land. Sustaining the economy rarely affirms the sanctity of life, and this often translates into threats by the Empire to withhold funding from local municipalities when economic decisions are not made in the best interest of the Empire or if a puppet gets out of line.

In opposition to Empire, however, stands Jesus and God’s love that, according to scripture, pushes back against darkness, the powers of this world, and the world itself.  First John 2:15 says it plainly, “Do not love the world or the things of the world,” which means avoiding worldliness and the values of the world but affirming the people who live in the world.  This means initiating love for people (not the values of the world) that is “bold” (1 John 4:17) because “as he is [God is love], so are we in the world”.

The Greek word for bold is parrhesia, which can be translated as “cheerful courage”. It is not a love that gets our own way, but a love that makes a way for the love of Christ to up-end and subvert the values of the world and of Empire.

God’s Love pushes back the notion that a nation or empire has a divine mandate to rule in the name of God. Quite the contrary, love is the ultimate defense against the “principalities and powers of the air” (Eph. 6:11-12) and Satan, who currently holds “all authority” (kingship) over the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:6). (Its hard for us to hear this truth isn’t it?).

God’s Love pushes back against the notion that a good economy translates into “peace.” Every worldly economy from the beginning of time (after Eden) has winners and losers. There is only one peace in which no competitors and no losers exist, and that is found the Good News of Jesus Christ who frees us from the world’s flawed, fragile, and fear-inducing economy. We place our trust entirely in Christ, not in our stuff or the ability to accumulate stuff as a measure of peace and tranquility—and Christ calls us not to retain our stuff by means of threatening or taking the lives of others (see the Sermon on the Mount).

God’s Love pushes back against a swollen military complex. In current history, this is why our very nation was founded both in reaction to and in resistance of a “standing army.”  For all my conversations surrounding the constitutionality of guns with gun owners, gun owners often claim that the Second Amendment is there to keep the government from infringing on the rights of the states and the people of the states– Why now, then, does it seem that we readily hand the keys over to standing armies for national security that deny due process even when those armies are not requested by local municipalities?  It has to do with the previous point–when Christians are more concerned with protecting their “stuff,” they are more likely to do and support means by which they protect stuff at the expense of the lives of people.

God’s Love pushes back against the subterfuge of power and Empire-wielding leadership. Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “When Caesar, having exacted what is Caesar’s, demands still more insistently that we render unto him what is God’s — that is a sacrifice we dare not make.”  Christ will not be co-opted by the state anymore than Christ should be subject to Caesar. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s; do not render to Caesar what is God’s! Jesus gave the church an other-worldly ethic that flies in the face of political manipulation: “Those who seek to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

God’s Love pushes back against fear and intimidation.  Rather, God’s love calls for biblical, “cheerful courage”. Bold love infiltrates and usurps the values and methods of empire. It is not passive, but takes action. It is not merely a feeling or a message on a Hallmark card–it is a call to enact God’s values and ethics on the world around us. God is love, and we–God’s children–are to be Christ’s Beloved Community.

This sober reminder of Jesus, set in the context of the Roman Empire, may have fresh lessons for us today…  What lessons might we learn for our present-day context, culture and public sector?

Sources

David Ray Griffin, The Christian Gospel for Americans: A Systematic Theology (Anoka: Process Century Press, 2019), p. 130.

Parrhesia,” in The New Spirit-Filled Bible, ed. by Jack Hayford (Thomas Nelson Press, 2002), p. 1392.

Ministry to those with Dementia and Alzheimers: Review of “Ministry of the Forgotten,” by Kenneth Carder

Ministry with the Forgotten: Dementia through a Spiritual Lens

By Joe LaGuardia

Several years ago, I ran a caregiving ministry for those whose parents were aging (a few had spouses for whom they cared), and I made visitation to their care receivers a top priority. A majority of care receivers suffered from dementia and dementia-related diseases.

I assumed that when I visited with these suffering servants, I was bringing God to them–that I was ministering to them.

Upon visiting, I found out I was dead wrong. Often, these loved ones ministered to me more than I to them. They provided gifts of presence. They gave words of blessing. They were Christ to me.

In Ministry with the Forgotten: Dementia through a Spiritual Lens, Kenneth Carder provides testimony of caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife and frames ministry to those with dementia as a mutual one of presence.

His narrative rests on a theology of incarnation. Those with dementia minister to us and create a ministry for us within the church. When we visit, our loved ones invite us into their world. They may not remember names and dates and that we visited them yesterday–but they abide in a world in which love and hope spring.

Memories, often long-term, make up a matrix in which people still sing songs they knew as children and recall favorite scriptures. Even anger and depression, prevalent in many dementia loved ones, create ecosystems pregnant with a vocation of being. It is our job as ministers to enter that world and draw out where the Spirit is at work.

Another contribution that Carder makes is in exposing our reliance on cognition as a linchpin for salvation, and our over-reliance on making a confession of salvation in which all our faculties are in full swing. This is based on Enlightenment philosophy from Descartes: our identity stems from an ability to think critically and live independently. “I think, therefore I am.” I confess, therefore I am saved.

Yet, this places salvation in a place of individualistic choice. Our confessions, however, are merely outward acknowledgements of God’s ongoing work in us. It doesn’t necessitate God’s work, but only makes it explicit. When we forget that, we struggle to see how those who have cognitive deficiencies can, as evangelicals say, “get saved.” How can a person who can’t speak or doesn’t remember what is said from one moment to the next “confess Christ” as Lord?

Carder reminds us of biblical salvation, which is more comprehensive than what we have too often privatized. He puts us and the church back into a community in which God is central and God’s salvation a gift of grace, not necessarily dependent on our vocalization of that grace: “We are because of who God is….We are saved because of what Christ has done on our behalf.”

“Dementia,” Carder writes, “challenges a theology that locates God exclusively or primarily in the confines of the human intellect and pushes toward a theology that transcends individualized cognition.”

Our value is not dependent on our independence, but on our value as God’s beloved creation, the imago dei that informs our inherent worth as individuals and as a community. Our salvation is informed by the baptized community that mediates God’s salvation in times when people are unable–incapable even–of doing it themselves (this, surely, is where Carder reflects his Methodism).

When our loved ones lose the ability to think critically or have independence–to know,and say, and do the things that demonstrate salvation in Christ–it is up to us, God’s community, to carry them in the bosom of the church and the nurturing love of Christ.

Our loved ones are valuable not because of their memories or lack thereof, but because we are a remembering–and re-membering–people that move individuals, displaced by disease on the margins, within the center of caregiving congregations.

We don’t bring Christ to loved ones suffering from dementia; rather, we meet Christ in the “world” in which they live. We join these saints, bound up in the promise of salvation, in the community Body of Christ. And this forms a vocation of ministry whereby they act as agents of God’s grace for us.

Overall, Carder’s book is insightful and practical. You will need your Bible in one hand and Kleenex in the other.